Why Do They Do That is a series by Kitty Wenham that aims to shine a light on some of the most common tactics used by those who perpetrate abuse. In this article we will explore the theory of love-bombing, popularised in 1995 by psychology professor Margaret Singer. Content warning: This series will regularly discuss topics related to physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
‘Romeo and Juliet’ is often cited as the most romantic love story of all time. Unapologetically dramatic, it’s hard to remember that the events that take place unfold over the space of just four days. The two lovers’ attraction is immediate, a prototypical example of that illusively sought-after magic; love-at-first-sight. In Romantic movies, love happens in an instant. You know the moment. They see each other for the first time, the camera lingers, the music slows. Within fifteen minutes they’ve vocalised those special three words and they’re spending every day together. There are grand gestures; fields of flowers, Christmas light shows and boomboxes outside of bedroom windows. It’s the perfect fantasy of extravagant affection. But the problem is that it’s just that; a fantasy.
In reality, being bombarded with affection and attention in the early stages of a relationship can be a serious warning sign of abuse. Experts call this phenomenon ‘love-bombing’.
Love-bombing refers to being overwhelmed with intense love, attention and affection at the beginning of a relationship. The more serious problems come when this attention is withdrawn as the relationship turns inevitably toxic, or even abusive. Abusers often follow a familiar pattern in their relationships; idolise, devalue and discard, and love-bombing is frequently a key component in the initial phase of idealisation. Although idealisation can sometimes look like love, it is not – it is infatuation, and obsession.
Love-bombing is different to a genuine romantic gesture because it is not sincere. Whilst it is normal to want to do nice things and try to impress a new partner, love-bombing is intended to manipulate and overwhelm someone with over-the-top displays of affection. It is self-serving, rather than selfless.
Clinical psychologist, and author of the book ‘Rethinking Narcissism’, Craig Malkin, describes love-bombing as “like having the sun shine on you, and only you, for days, week, maybe even months. It’s too good to be true because it’s all an illusion. Love-bombers can’t love you because they don’t even know who you are yet.
“There’s a desperate insistence to love-bombing, like you’re not playfully being put on a pedestal ― you’re being glued to it”.
“Love-bombing can have such a negative effect on the partner involved because it is used as a conditioning tool. Once the abuser feels they have taken what they need from you, they can become angry and controlling.”
The term ‘love-bombing’ was first coined by the Unification Church of the United States in the 1970s, who used toxic affection to draw in and foster loyalty between themselves and new followers. The term was popularised by academics such as Margaret Singer to describe how cult leaders manipulated people into extreme actions. Whilst non-romantic, the relationship between devotees and leaders is a form of abusive relationship in itself, and thus the term later came to be used to describe the actions of other types of abusers.
Love-bombing in relationships can encompass many different types of behaviour. For example, constant communication; something that has become much easier and commonplace in an increasingly online world. Another indicator might be quickly making grand plans for the future, like discussing wedding venues and children. It might also include being showered with lavish gifts, trips and romantic dinners, or a barrage of affectionate texts. You may feel they always know exactly what to say, or that you talk so much you must be made for each other. Something that may seem romantic after a year of dating should raise a red flag if it occurs early on, for example, in the first month.
Love-bombing can have such a negative effect on the partner involved because it is used as a conditioning tool. Once the abuser feels they have taken what they need from you, they can become angry and controlling. Experts call this shift the “devaluation phase”. The love-bombing is the positive reinforcement, whilst devaluation is the negative consequence, or punishment used to control the victim.
This can leave people feeling like they have experienced a classic bait-and-switch. Someone who was affectionate and attentive becomes abusive. This vicious cycle of idealisation and devaluation can continue indefinitely until the relationship ends. This can be hurtful, and confusing, and during periods of devaluation the victim may try desperately to get back in the abuser’s good graces. Each time, the victim finds that they must work harder. This may include sacrificing something important, like friends, family, hobbies, financial stability or health in an effort to earn back the abuser’s affection and attention.
An unrealistic cultural view of love and romance has led to a widespread normalisation of intense beginning to relationships, which should otherwise be seen as a potential warning sign. Love-bombing fulfils our natural want for love, attention, and self-worth, and abusers are good at identifying and exploiting this.
One 2016 study at the University of Arkansas analysing young adult relationships found that love-bombing was positively correlated with narcissistic tendencies, avoidant attachment, anxious attachment, and negatively correlated with self-esteem. Although most research has focused on the use of love-bombing within cults, and more recently, romantic relationships, there is also emerging literature on how this tactic has been used by sexual predators. Last year, a study into the sexual exploitation of indigenous girls in Canada found that love-bombing was also used as a method of control at the beginning of sexually abusive relationships.
“Swinging between two opposites, love and kindness to verbal abuse, silent treatment, making you feel guilt and responsible and in some cases physical assault has a devastating impact on people’s lives.”
In an article for Psychology Today titled ‘The Danger of Manipulative Love-Bombing in a Relationship’ that drew widespread attention to the phenomenon last year, Dr. Dale Archer advises that some useful ways to counteract or recover from love-bombing include a strict no-contact rule, re-connecting with family and friends and reminding yourself that love-bombing is abuse.
Speaking to The Nopebook, he commented; “I suspect that the love bomber does choose [their] victims in much the same way as a sexual predator. In the end, even though the strategies may differ, it’s all about power and control over another. The key for prevention is education, as is so often the case. The #MeToo movement has done a great job in that respect”
Dawn Bargate, a representative for the Independent Domestic Abuse Services (IDAS), the largest specialist domestic abuse and sexual violence charity in Yorkshire, added;
“In the case of love-bombing, the showering of love and affection will be conditional, things will change if you show any interest in other areas of your life apart from the new relationship. The abuse may leave you feeling confused, responsible and with a desire to work hard to get back what you believed was the perfect partner. This conditioning can be devastating and unsafe, with some abusers resorting to physical violence.
Swinging between two opposites, love and kindness to verbal abuse, silent treatment, making you feel guilt and responsible and in some cases physical assault has a devastating impact on people’s lives. This behaviour will leave the survivor feeling cornered and unable to make sense of what is happening.
If you recognise some of the signs, remember it is completely unacceptable behaviour and it’s not your fault. Help and support is available.”
If you think you may be experiencing abuse, please reach out. In the U.K. you can call the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Freephone Helpline on 0808 2000 247 or email firstname.lastname@example.org